Hear Philip K. Dick’s Famous Metz Speech: “If You Find this World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others” (1977)

A news­pa­per arti­cle about this speech could well be titled: AUTHOR CLAIMS TO HAVE SEEN GOD BUT CAN’T GIVE ACCOUNT OF WHAT HE SAW. — PKD

In 1977, cult writer Philip K. Dick arrived at a sci­ence fic­tion con­ven­tion in Metz, France to deliv­er a speech called, “If You Find this World Bad, You Should See Some of the Oth­ers.” (Read an edit­ed tran­script here.) The audi­ence would leave bewil­dered, mys­ti­fied. His talk ranged wide­ly across such top­ics as cos­mo­log­i­cal time, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the uni­verse as a com­put­er sim­u­la­tion, the expe­ri­ence of deja vu, and the oppres­sive regime of Richard Nixon. It would become a sort of rebus for decod­ing Dick’s fic­tion.

If the “Metz address” were only a key to the strange occur­rences in nov­els like A Scan­ner Dark­ly, Flow My Tears, The Police­man Said, and The Man in the High Cas­tle, it would be an extra­or­di­nary doc­u­ment for Philip K. Dick fans.

But just as Dick claimed that the events of his 1981 nov­el V.A.L.I.S. were real– he had actu­al­ly had a vision­ary encounter with “God” after den­tal surgery in 1974 — so here he claims to have actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced, or remem­bered, mul­ti­ple real­i­ties and, after said encounter, to have rec­og­nized them all as true.

I, in my sto­ries and nov­els, often write about coun­ter­feit worlds, semi-real worlds, as well as deranged pri­vate worlds inhab­it­ed, often, by just one per­son, while, mean­time, the oth­er char­ac­ters either remain in their own worlds through­out or are some­how drawn into one of the pecu­liar ones. …At no time did I have a the­o­ret­i­cal or con­scious expla­na­tion for my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with these plu­ri­form pseudoworlds, but now I think I under­stand. What I was sens­ing was the man­i­fold or par­tial­ly actu­al­ized real­i­ties lying tan­gent to what evi­dent­ly is the most actu­al­ized one, the one that the major­i­ty of us, by con­sen­sus gen­tium, agree on.

“The world of Flow My Tears is an actu­al (or rather once actu­al) alter­nate world, and I remem­ber it in detail. I do not know who else does. Maybe no one else does. per­haps all of you were always — have always been — here. But I was not. In nov­el after nov­el, sto­ry after sto­ry, over a twen­ty-five year peri­od, I wrote repeat­ed­ly about a par­tic­u­lar oth­er land­scape, a dread­ful one. In March 1974, I under­stood why. …I had good rea­son to. My nov­els and sto­ries were, with­out my real­iz­ing it con­scious­ly, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. It was — this return of mem­o­ry — the most extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence of my life. …

The nar­row­er sub­ject of his speech, Dick says by way of intro­duc­tion, is “orthog­o­nal time,” or “right-angle time.” To explain this he calls up an image of par­al­lel uni­vers­es over­lap­ping at the edges of a “lat­er­al axis.” These blend and “come into focus,” as an enti­ty he calls “the Pro­gramer-Repro­gram­mer” changes the vari­ables, while a “coun­ter­en­ti­ty” he calls the “Dark Coun­ter­play­er” tries to mess things up. Despite the use of soft­ware terms, Dick’s imagery seems to draw as much from chess, or Tao­ism, as com­put­er sci­ence. The inter­play of programmer/counterprogrammer is a dialec­tic, result­ing in new syn­the­ses. God is not an inde­pen­dent, self-exis­tent being but some­thing more akin to Atman, “the view of the old­est reli­gion of India, and to some extent… of Spin­oza and Alfred North White­head …. God with­in the uni­verse… The Sufi say­ing [from Rumi] ‘The work­man is invis­i­ble with­in the work­shop’ applies here.”

We can­not see the work­ings of this mys­ti­cal intel­li­gence except when the illu­sion of seam­less­ness breaks down and mem­o­ries of past or alter­nate lives intrude. These are not mem­o­ries of a lin­ear time, but of oth­er pos­si­ble present times, all exist­ing at once just out of focus. Dystopi­an police states, an alter­nate present ruled by Nazi Ger­many and Impe­r­i­al Japan… These cur­rent­ly exist, Dick says, on the orthog­o­nal line of time, only we can­not see them because the vari­ables, and our mem­o­ries, have been changed to suit the lat­est ver­sion of real­i­ty, a syn­the­sis and updat­ed improve­ment. How­ev­er, it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that we’re all expe­ri­enc­ing slight­ly dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, depend­ing on the “mem­o­ries” of alter­nate presents leak­ing into our expe­ri­ence.

Thus, the talk’s title: not only could the world be worse, he says, but it is cur­rent­ly worse in the mul­ti­verse of reject­ed alter­nate worlds we can’t (or can’t quite) see. Here, at the end of his speech, Dick gets the­o­log­i­cal, and tele­o­log­i­cal, again, claim­ing to have seen a vision of a “park­like” world that “was not what my Chris­t­ian train­ing had pre­pared me for at all.” His descrip­tion sounds ripped from the cov­er of a 70s pulp fan­ta­sy nov­el, com­plete with a naked god­dess and an alien “land­scape beyond a gold­en rec­tan­gle door­way.” He takes pains to dis­tance his vision from the Chris­t­ian gar­den of Eden, but his final remarks sound more like C.S. Lewis than the para­noid, drug-addled con­spir­acist his audi­ence might have been pre­pared to meet:

The best I can do …is to play the role of prophet, of ancient prophets and such ora­cles as the sibyl at Del­phi, and to talk of a won­der­ful gar­den world, much like that which once our ances­tors are said to have inhab­it­ed — in fact, I some­times imag­ine it to be exact­ly that same world restored, as if a false tra­jec­to­ry of our world will even­tu­al­ly be ful­ly cor­rect­ed and once more we will be where once, many thou­sands of years ago, we lived and were hap­py.

…I believe I know a great secret. When the work of restora­tion is com­plet­ed, we will not even remem­ber the tyran­nies, the cru­el bar­barisms of the Earth we inhab­it­ed… the vast body of pain and grief and loss and dis­ap­point­ment with­in us will be expunged as if it had nev­er been. I believe that process is tak­ing place now, has always been tak­ing place now. And, mer­ci­ful­ly, we are already being per­mit­ted to for­get that which for­mer­ly was. And per­haps in my nov­els and sto­ries I have done wrong to urge you to remem­ber.

Was Philip K. Dick out of his mind? He sounds per­fect­ly lucid in oth­er inter­views he gave at the same time, and dis­miss­es the notion that his ideas are the prod­uct of men­tal ill­ness. Travis Diehl writes at Art Papers that Dick has come to seem more like an actu­al than a self-styled prophet in the decades since this inter­view, and his “para­noia comes to seem more and more like pre­science,” fore­see­ing the major themes of The Matrix, Jean Baudrillard’s post­mod­ern clas­sic Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion, and favorite philoso­pher of Sil­i­con Val­ley Nick Bostrom.

What­ev­er the source of the author’s expe­ri­ences, “the rup­ture that pushed Dick’s life toward a knowl­edge of oth­er worlds — towards gno­sis — was an aes­thet­ic one: Dick’s visions appeared accom­pa­nied, or induced, by art,” and it was only by means of art that he claimed to appre­hend them. “Our God is the deus abscon­di­tus: the hid­den god.” We can­not know what it is, he says. But this does not exempt us from the mak­ing and remak­ing of the world. No one is — to use a cur­rent term of art — a non-playable char­ac­ter. “Con­cealed though the form is,” Dick says, “the lat­ter will con­front us; we are involved in it — in fact, we are instru­ments by which it is accom­plished.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear VALIS, an Opera Based on Philip K. Dick’s Meta­phys­i­cal Nov­el

Robert Crumb Illus­trates Philip K. Dick’s Infa­mous, Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Meet­ing with God (1974)

The Penul­ti­mate Truth About Philip K. Dick: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Mys­te­ri­ous Uni­verse of PKD

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Scott Russo says:

    The audi­ence at this par­tic­u­lar event left bewil­dered because the speech PKD was to deliv­er was very large­ly cut at the last moment. His French trans­la­tor who was sup­posed to be read­ing from the same speech, wound up read­ing from one that had been dif­fer­ent­ly cut. So what PKD said in Eng­lish did not cor­re­spond to what was said in French. PKD was aware that the audi­ence left con­fused and he said he had no idea what speech they actu­al­ly heard because he does­n’t speak French and nev­er saw the edits, but it was­n’t the speech he intend­ed to give.

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